Musician’s View – Bach Concertos

Bach Concertos is MCO’s May tour. The performances can be heard in Melbourne on Thursday 2 May and Sunday 5 March, and in Shepparton (3 May), Traralgon (7 May) and Warragul (8 May).


Our upcoming program celebrates the keyboard concertos of the grand master of the Baroque era – Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was himself a renowned keyboard virtuoso and composed prolifically for the instrument. His concerti are among the first for keyboard ever written, yet another remarkable achievement by this musical revolutionary. Alongside these effervescent piano works we are performing one of the great masterpieces composed for string orchestra.
Bartók’s Divertimento. For many music lovers, Bach and Bartók sit at opposite ends of the spectrum and there are certainly obvious differences in their musical language. However, what is surprising is the myriad of connections between these seemingly disparate works.
Firstly, let’s look at what makes the music of Bach and Bartók sound different. The obvious starting point is their use of harmony. Bach’s writing uses traditional tonal harmonic language – unsurprising from the man Beethoven dubbed the “father of harmony”. Bartók also uses a lot of tonal language in his Divertimento but he combines this with chromaticism and different modes to create a variety of musical colours. The second movement in particular stretches the harmonic language almost to the point of atonality, which helps to create a dark and eerie atmosphere. Bach and Bartók’s works are both full of rhythmic energy but Bartók does use different rhythmic devices to create interest and contrast in his writing. He employs syncopation, irregularly placed accents and changing meters to create lots of twists and turns in the music, keeping the audience (and the musicians!) on the edges of their seats. Bartók’s writing also employs a variety of extended techniques for string players, including double stops (two notes played at the same time), harmonics and Bartók pizzicati – a technique of snapping the string invented by the composer himself. These different effects are yet another way this brilliant composer creates colour and excitement in his music.
Bartók’s exploration of rhythm, harmony and tone colour is what made him one of the most innovative and influential composers of the early 20th century. But like all great masters, he also was always looking back to the musical traditions before him. His Divertimento shares much with Bach’s keyboard concertos. This is particularly apparent in the way he uses texture, which is reminiscent of the Baroque concerto grosso where the full string orchestra is regularly alternating with a small group of soloists. Bartók also employs the traditionally Baroque textural device of a fugue in the final movement of the Divertimento. In a fugue different instruments play the same material but enter one after the other. The overlapping themes help to build interest and tension – in Bartók’s case his three-voice fugue builds toward a brilliant violin cadenza, which is certainly one of the highlights of the work. Another similarity between the writing of Bach and Bartók is the influence of dance in their music. This is apparent from the first movement of the Divertimento, which opens with driving rhythms before transitioning into a charming waltz. Bach’s music is constantly bubbling with rhythmic energy and was heavily informed by the popular dance styles of his time. In his Concerto No. 4 in A Major, this is seen in the elegant lilting rhythms of the slow movement and the exuberant final movement, which feels quite like a gigue. The final movement of Bach’s Concerto No. 7 in G minor is a rustic folk dance – very like the final movement of Bartók’s Divertimento. This influence of folk music is another quality shared between the two great composers. Bartók, in particular, was passionate about collecting and disseminating folk music from all over his homeland of Hungary and it is infused through all of his music.
The most important commonality between Bach and Bartók is that they both wrote inventive and engaging music. The combination of Bach’s glorious piano concertos in the masterful hands of David Fung with the energy, colour and brilliance of Bartók’s Divertimento make this a program not to be missed!